Reconnaissance Articles

Wise Kids Without "Why"s

Ariel Anderton, Reconnaissance

‘Kids do the darnedest things’ as they say and we’re often amused or confused. Their impulsiveness and enthusiasm can be hilarious. We like to quote those moments to our co-workers or post to share with friends. Then there are the inconvenient times that frustrate us. Our first reaction to those instances is “why?” “Why did you do that to your sister?” “Why on the floor?”

 “Why to the hamster?” “Why at the store?” As much as a good, solid reason would make you feel a bit better with the situation it’s not something your kid can really answer.

Most of the time when your kid doesn’t answer your “why” question or not to satisfaction, it’s not because they’re dodging you or being defiant (you can probably tell when they are). They really don’t know. You might be thinking “but I think he does know because he gives me answers and sometimes it even sort of makes sense to me.” There is a difference between having the vocabulary and willingness to answer – since they can tell you’re expecting one – and actually grasping what is really being asked for and accurately delivering that from what is going on inside of them.

To understand their own emotional motivation for their behavior and then verbalize it is a very developmentally advanced task. In fact, most adults still struggle to do this well. I’m stumped at times with my own “why did I do that” questions. It takes abstract reasoning. They are just not there yet. Abstract reasoning fully kicks in around late middle school to early high school.

The good news is that there are still ways you can help them manage their emotions even in their younger years. You can move them along the road from just acting those emotions out to talking them out instead more and more as they grow. These exasperating moments can be great places you can help them get there and even feel better yourself in the process.

The best timing for these teachable moments is after the tantrum, tears or outburst. Give them a time out or other limit first before trying to talk to them. As soon as they’re calm enough to hear you is a good time for this chat. It could even be at the tail end of the fit when they may still be pouting but you can tell the storm has mostly passed. But you want to be sure not to wait too long that they’re attention has switched to something else (tomorrow is too late and depending on your child’s age, an hour after may be too late too). The optimum learning window is after coming down from the height of the emotions they just experienced and before they move on to another activity.

Mirror and Name their emotion. Remember when you smiled at your baby and got a smile back? Your kids still learn by imitation, especially from the important people in their life. Kids need an emotional mirror to show them what their emotions are doing and what they look like, so they’ll know what you’re talking about when you name it. This doesn’t mean joining them on the grocery isle floor and kicking your legs too. I’m talking about some kind of physical animation on your side that mirrors the emotion they are showing as you talk to them. This might be an exaggerated frown for “sad,” furrowed brow and tight lips for “angry,” or hugging yourself for “afraid.” Once they’ve got some practice with emotional vocabulary and seeing your physical reflection of it, you can mirror simply with words: “Awww, sad” or “Yay! You’re happy.” The key is that they know you’re mirroring them, not mocking them or expressing your own emotion. Name the emotion it appears they are feeling. Start with the basics and pick one of these four through the first years of elementary: sad, angry, afraid and happy. As they grow, you can reflect more complex emotions like: jealous, anxious, or disappointed.

Explain why it looks like they’re feeling this. Take your own best guess. Start short and simple. “You feel sad because it’s time to leave.” Reflect multiple and more complex emotions as your child gets older: “You feel jealous and hurt because your friend got picked and you didn’t.” You’ll know when your kid is getting the hang of this when they correct you: “No mommy. I felt disappointed because we played tag and not kickball.”

The next time you’re perplexed with what your kid just did remember they’re learning about their “why” just as much as you. When you find yourself asking “why,” you’ve found your next golden opportunity to teach them.